A Tower for a Trumpet: The great Canadian art switcheroo
One suspects that few humble souls of modest means can grasp the staggering amounts of money spent on works of art. It’s a phenomenon easily as mystifying as the creative ability that impels the human being holding the brush, chisel or charcoal. How do you put a value on an image captured on a piece of stretched canvas?
The arcane world of big ticket art is in the spotlight in Quebec lately thanks to an intriguing little tango between some of the biggest players in the stateowned Canadian culture world.
We refer to the current scheme on the part of the National Gallery of Canada to cash in a work by Russianfrench modernist Marc Chagall, La Tour Eiffel, and use that money to acquire another work considered to be a “national treasure.”
The Chagall is supposed to go on the auction block at Christie’s in New York City on May 15. The speculation is the 1929 oil could fetch up to $13 million and possibly well beyond, maybe even doubling the National Gallery’s $8 million annual acquisitions budget.
As of this writing the National Gallery has not confirmed what “national treasure” it’s willing to sacrifice a Chagall to acquire, one that it says spends most of its time in storage. But now everybody knows, thanks to the gossipy art and museum community in Quebec, the prized painting is French master Jacques-louis David’s Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpets of the Apocalypse, or Saint Jerome for short.
In his long career, David, known as Napoleon Bonaparte’s artist, produced a spectacular portfolio of epic paintings and poignant portraits, and, we learn, was perhaps the most influential French painter of his era, with dozens of students emulating his neoclassical style.
The plot thickens on this art caper when it is revealed the owner of Saint Jerome is none other than Quebec City’s Notre Dame Catholic parish. The parish, in its wisdom driven by necessity, wants to sell the masterpiece to raise money to sustain its precious heritage properties, notably the spectacular Basilica in the old city, and the oldest stone church in Canada, Notre Dame des Victoires church in Place d’armes, one of the most visited tourist stops in North America.
Saint Jerome is among a large catalogue of art works donated to the parish and ultimately Laval University by the Camail sisters in 1922. The sisters were immigrants from France whose grandfather Gustave Mailand was a successful painter and collector. Much of his collection came to Quebec with his granddaughters and much of that collection is stored and curated at the Musée de la Civilization in the old city.
Saint Jerome is currently on display until June at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts, where the management there is now talking with the Musée de la Civilization about mounting an offer for the painting, with or without the federal National Gallery as a partner.
Given the prospect to pool the acquisition resources of two (or three) major museums, the question arises why the National Gallery would want to sell a Chagall treasure if it doesn’t need to. Not surprisingly, there is a petition to block the looming auction of La Tour Eiffel.
The irony of this is that the parish is quite explicit it has no intention of selling such a masterpiece to foreign interests in an open bidding process. Parish officials, according to a report from the Agence QMI, approached the National Gallery, as well as the museums in Quebec and Montreal. How much the parish wants for the painting has not been released.
No matter which museum or museums end up “owning” the painting, the fact remains a valuable “Canadian” work of art stays in the country, the parish gets the funds to maintain its treasured buildings in perpetuity, and your average citizen gets a chance to appreciate a work from the eye and hand of the man who painted Napoleon.